Geoff Gallop: reconnecting with community is core Labor reform

A party that saw itself as accountable to itself and to faction leaders soon squandered the broad base of support that propelled Labor to victory in 2007. AAP/Alan Porritt

This is an edited extract of a speech by former WA premier Geoff Gallop at Tuesday night’s launch in Sydney of Open Labor, a national movement for Labor reform and a broader renewal of politics as a more decent and open process.

When citizens are given the chance to deliberate on questions of political economy they usually come down to what we might call a social democratic view of the world. It goes like this:

  1. Democracies are good but not perfect and they can always be improved.

  2. There are too many unacceptable inequalities in our society and they should be tackled by the government initiative.

  3. Society does matter and the economy should serve it rather than the other way around.

  4. The environment we live in does matter, whether the street, the suburb, the town or city, the region, the state, the nation or the globe.

The fair society

Like the great political philosopher John Rawls, I believe these ideas to be built into our DNA as social beings. Rawls comes down not for the unregulated market, not for socialist equality and certainly not for monocultural communitarianism but rather for “a fair society” based on a modified – or might we say – a socialised freedom.

How powerful has this idea of fairness been? It saw the great liberal John Stuart Mill take up the cause of redistribution and co-operation and his successor John Maynard Keynes take up the challenge of developing policies for full employment. It provided a powerful pole of attraction for the working class of modern capitalism.

This put significant sections of this leading class on the side of democracy as against fascism to the right and communism to the left. How important was that in the six decades from 1930 to 1990?

Among the high points for social democracy in Australian history, I would list the so-called “state socialism” of early Labor governments that involved the use of public enterprises to break up monopoly power, the institutionalisation of the Keynesian welfare state in the 1940s and 50s, the governments of Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan, the accord between labour and business facilitated by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and, finally, the development of sustainability thinking planning and practice by state Labor in the contemporary era.

Labor’s evolving base

Each one of these high points took the Labor Party beyond itself: from unionism to a social market and from the economy to the society and the communities within it as well as to the environment. For this to happen Labor needed to be larger than itself or, as we might say, greater than the sum of its parts.

It has always been but never just been a working-class party. By institutionalising a wider membership base Labor took itself into the broader society and its farms and fisheries, small businesses, its professions and its not unimportant coterie of well-intentioned capitalists.

So too did it legitimate a healthy relationship between class and party by recognising the special role parliamentary members and leaders need to play in a properly democratic system and an economy forever being influenced by developments in science and technology. Neither side owned the other but neither were they independent of each other, party conferences being the ultimate source of authority.

At its best it worked like this: a broadly based party based on workers and their unions and leaders willing to think expansively but respectful of and ultimately accountable to the wider party.

In “theory”, Labor is such a party, democratic in outlook and democratic in its own structure and organisation. The first takes it to the wider society and its issues and concerns; the second locks everyone into a system of accountability stronger than that in liberal conservative parties but certainly not of the Leninist or democratic-centralist type.

Labor’s internal debates

Over the years the party has had some great battles over the terms and conditions that ought to apply in the contract between members, unions and parliamentarians and on the policies that best reflect the Labor ethos.

On three occasions the party split. In more recent years the “party” has held together but membership has collapsed and power has become more centralised and interest-based.

On the policy question Labor has had some pivotal moments. I start with the Blackburn Declaration of 1921, which committed the ALP to socialisation but only “to the extent necessary” to combat “exploitation” and other “anti-social features” of the market and finish with Whitlam and the official ending of the White Australia Policy.

Others we might point to include Evatt’s internationalist achievements, Whitlam’s “needs” principle, Hawke and Keating’s new competition policy and Rudd and Gillard’s emissions trading scheme.

Underneath each of these developments has been internal debate on the balance to be struck between nationalism and internationalism, public and private provision of education, the state and the market and between the economy and the environment. What has been a debate within the wider community becomes a debate leading to resolution within the ALP – that’s a sign of health rather than the reverse.

When Labor activists reflect on these matters today a number of currents can be discerned.

Firstly, there are those who see a split between “Old” and “New” Labor. Old Labor, they say, represents the working class, the economy, conservative social values and an unswerving commitment to our international alliances. New Labor is more explicitly libertarian on social issues, more market-focused and environmentalist in economics and more cosmopolitan generally.

Secondly, there are those who see a split between “Union” Labor and “New” Labor. The drivers here are the specific interests held to be important by the affiliated unions and their factions as opposed to the wider public interests within locality, state or nation - be they social, economic or environmental.

Accountability and control

How, then, does the Labor Party resolve these differences today? What are the systems of control and accountability? Do they facilitate progress or do they lock Labor into the status quo?

Most observers would agree that the union-based factions have more institutional power today than was the case in the 1970s through to the 1990s. They play a much stronger – and more direct – role in the pre-selection of candidates and they have come to an accommodation among themselves on the importance of retaining the status quo and sharing the spoils.

It’s not a good look because it’s not a good system. It discourages the newest generation of politically savvy voters from joining and it gives too much power to too few people with too narrow a base of interests.

It doesn’t mean Labor can’t win elections or that it is completely paralysed in its thinking and practice. This being said, it is making the former harder and it is narrowing down the issues deemed important and in need of analysis by a party which says it “speaks for the nation” and “the public interest”.

Think back to 2007 and the wide support Labor gained to restore balance to all aspects of Australian political economy and then to 2013 when the party was thrashed at a general election.

Our federal parliamentary Labor Party just couldn’t keep its focus and the big and relevant picture it painted in 2007. It saw itself as accountable to itself and to faction leaders rather than to the party and those parts of the national platform it saw as representing our national interest.

Proposals for change

We could, of course, completely re-imagine the party and break the link between the conference and the parliamentary party. Conference could advise and suggest but wouldn’t be the final court of appeal. This would make the pre-selection of candidates – and of leaders – the all-important question.

Two sets of suggestions have been made: adding a community component to the local pre-selections; and adding a members’ component to the election of the leader. Both ideas have merit and in some instances are now in play – for example, the use of primaries in some local and state pre-selections and the provision of a members’ component in the election of the federal leader.

However, how do they sit when coupled with downgrading the conference to an advisory role?

Part of the role of conference is to send a clear message to electors about what the party stands for and how it expects its elected representatives to act. On occasions it’s been so out of tune with events that leaders have had to seek change.

Sometimes they lose (for example NSW Labor on energy privatisation) but on many occasions they win the day (for example, Geoff Gallop on old-growth forecasts in WA) and look so much better for the experience, having shown they can take up the fight and win the day.

The key to all of this can’t just be that there is some form of external accountability for MPs but also that the party has a wide base in society. When unions and Labor branches were powerful poles of attraction the debates within the party were as significant as debates within the community and the parliament – and were treated as such.

Generally speaking, electors in a democracy prefer parties that take themselves seriously, that stand for something and which exercise the right amount of internal discipline so that what they say is what they will do.

Labor has a great story to tell about the nation and its needs. It should be seeking members on this basis, and not just on the basis that they will have some sort of role in selecting candidates.

It follows – as federal leader Bill Shorten has argued – that becoming a member should be easier but surely it has to mean more than that. Labor needs to incorporate the principle of “one member, one vote” as much as is feasible.

Unions that affiliate would do so on the basis of the number of members they can convince to join, as indeed could others with a like mind on where they believe a party like Labor should be heading.

What they would join, however, isn’t a party without a platform and a constitution. Nor would they join a party without a tradition and without “heroes” and “villains”. Like all organisations it would facilitate change but within a framework of core beliefs that defines its role in our society.

Objections to change

Opposition to all of this is based not only on vested interests but also on fear; the fear that Labor would become a party without a class backing it up and therefore devoid of influence. But how can we argue that Australia’s working class in all of its manifestations is represented adequately in the party today?

The unpalatable truth is that many involved in the labour movement have come to confuse “class” with “interests”. Those who are employed by others and paid a wage for their work are a class and, it is true, they all have an interest in the right to associate, organise and bargain.

However, they also have “interests” according to the level of skill they possess, the industry they are in and the particular work they perform. Some are employed by the state and within the community sector as well as by private owners of the means of production.

To bring all of those interests together into a coherent movement that can speak not only for itself but for the public interest has never been easy – it requires leadership of the highest order.

The problem for the Labor Party today is that when workers (and others) look in from the outside they don’t see Labor as a “mini public” but rather as a “self-interested political class”.

It’s a handicap we should seek to remove. It’s holding back the party as a leading force in Australian politics and providing opportunities for minor parties and particular interests to play a greater role than might otherwise be the case. From a populist perspective that’s not all bad, but it can be bad from a public policy perspective.

Developing good policy and politics

This takes me to the question of policy development and whether or not it is being constrained – and negatively so – by the existing party structure and balance of forces. If we go back to 2007 to 2013 it would appear so.

On the need to act on climate change powerful interests within the labour movement pressed for a backtracking rather than agenda-building approach. They won out in 2010 and again in 2013.

On the need to join with the principled, powerful and popular movement for same-sex marriage, Labor couldn’t go further than a conscience vote.

Political judgement is required when considering priorities and the pace and extent of change, but when that judgement is being exercised to serve particular interests it is often a political negative rather than a plus. So it was that Labor sacrificed the political momentum that had been created in the climate space and was unable to surf on the wave of support for same-sex marriage.

Of course other issues, notably leadership, played a role in determining Labor’s path to defeat. Still the two I have mentioned were certainly in play when it came to the surge in votes to the Greens throughout 2010, if only because of the impression they confirmed that Labor was incapable of transcending narrow interests and sticking with the common good.

What was once a strength for Labor – its internal democracy and the energy it created – is no longer there. It’s not that the organisation has changed its rules – it hasn’t – but rather that the social and political content that gave life to those rules has been lost. Only with reform can it be won back again.